The scent of incense wafted across the damp air as three 10-ton bronze Buddhas gazed serenely from their vast platform at the sprinkling of peaceful devotees silently praying on the bamboo mats at their giant feet. This was the Temple of Six Banyans, a Buddhist structure that was built in 537, with the leathery-leaved trees that surround it providing inspiration for its name.
It's just one of the sights that visitors can discover during a visa-free stopover in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton. And for 72 hours, U.S. citizens en route to other destinations can experience this often-overlooked city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong without further documentation required.
At Qingping Market, dried seahorses spill from jute sacks, and scorpions lie spread out on display. These unusual ingredients are used to make soups that are said to enhance vitality. Some believe such potions help safeguard against the health hazards of the city's frequent drizzle.
Visitors to the market will also find a wide variety of teas, another culinary weapon in the battle to overcome the elements. From steaming infusions of unusual pastel colors served in pots to the familiarly fragrant jasmine, tea and its intricate rituals form a central part of daily life.
Shamian Island retains a distinctly European feel with its rows of colonial-style buildings. Photo Credit: Anne Majumdar
For a look at the city's history, head to Shamian Island, where a series of bronze statues depict life from the 19th century, when the 0.1-square-mile sandbank on the Pearl River was occupied by the French and British residents of Guangzhou. Although the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 prompted their departure, it retains a distinctly European feel with its rows of colonial-style buildings.
But Guangzhou's appeal does not lie solely in its culture and history. The city also has a brave new face that is setting its sights firmly on the future.
This more modern face of the city can be found in Tianhe, a gleaming business district that is packed with air-conditioned malls and luxury hotels such as Sofitel, W and Ritz-Carlton.
Or there's the 1,969-foot Canton Tower. Once the tallest tower in the world, it offers some of the best views in town. A Ferris wheel sits at its summit with 16 pods that hold a total of 96 people following an unusual, almost horizontal design.
Here visitors will also find a number of restaurants, including two that revolve: Twist, a Mediterranean buffet, and Lutece, serving French fare.
In fact, visitors will find restaurants serving up international fare all around town, many of which come highly recommended. But for local dishes, head to vast, historical restaurant Panxi, although be warned that Cantonese cuisine can use a rather eclectic range of ingredients, such as tripe, frog or snake.
In just 72 hours, we have discovered the old and the new but, above all, the authentic. It may not be China's most cosmopolitan city, but it is the country's third largest for tourism, and it is certainly well worth a look.